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1066-1096 And All That: Crusading Christendom and Saxon Survival.   Leave a comment

The Monastic Settlements and Churches of East Anglia and Southern England:

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The great men of the counties and boroughs were not only concerned with wealth and power in this life, but also with their status in the next. That was why they erected churches, chantries and noble tombs to house their earthly remains, and paid priests to say masses for their souls in perpetuity. As we have already noted, the Normans were as muscular and and progressive about their Christianity as they were about their conquest and administration of foreign lands. The rule of the Conqueror coincided with a great revival of monasticism across western Christendom, from Scotland to Hungary. Even so, the number of new houses for monks and nuns built in Suffolk alone is remarkable. By 1200, there were twenty-eight monasteries and abbeys where small religious communities were permanently employed in caring for the sick and singing masses. At Bury St Edmunds (below), while the townsfolk grumbled in their urban hovels, the monks spent a large part of their income on making their abbey one of the grandest in Christendom. The poet-monk John Lydgate tells us that, not satisfied by the additions made to the buildings by Cnut, the now non-Saxon monks began, immediately after the Conquest, to build a new church with stone brought from Caen in Normandy.

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The destruction and re-building of the old Saxon minsters, such as at Winchester,  and the great town abbeys, as at Bury St Edmunds, should not be taken as a model for most of the parish churches of England. Suffolk people continued to be as devoted to their parish churches as they were distrustful of the great abbeys. There was scarcely a church in the county that did not experience some enlargement, extension or alteration in almost every medieval generation. The Normans built many churches but only a few, such as St Mary Wissington retain the original Norman pattern. Naves were widened to accommodate an increasing population in the thirteenth century, and chancels were extended. From about 1200, chantry chapels were enlarged or incorporated within existing buildings. The village churches we associate with the Normans are, for the most part, much later in construction, although they may retain Romanesque features, especially in their interiors, a few of which are survivals from the earlier eleventh century. Of course, the most famous abbey in England, was initially built under Edward the Confessor, but owes much to the Romanesque style he had observed during his exile in Normandy.

The Expansion of Christendom: England, The British Isles and the Continent:

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In the forty years from 1093 to 1133 that was taken to building the great columns of Durham Cathedral and the vaults that they support, Jerusalem was taken for Christianity, as a result of the First Crusade of 1096, and the population of north-western Europe had expanded to a point unsurpassed since the Celtic migrations of the fourth century BC.

048The expansion of Roman Catholicism in the west was delivered at the edge of a Norman sword in much of England, but we only have to look at the monastic remains in Scotland and Ireland to be aware of the broader cultural assimilation that was taking place by largely peaceful means by the end of the eleventh century. Irish Romanesque has left many fine examples in the ruins of churches at Kilmacduagh and at Clonfert Cathedral, originally the foundation of St Brendan the Navigator.

Shortly after this was built, Somerset masons must have brought to Ireland not only their skills but the stone they knew from building the first Gothic cathedral in Europe to employ the pointed arch throughout, that of Wells. With this stone they constructed the first cathedral of Dublin, Christ Church, of which only the north side of the nave remains as their original work. Some years before, the first Cistercians, chief among the patrons of the Gothic style, had arrived at Mellifont north of Dublin.

The religious order most favoured by William the Conqueror and the early Norman kings was that of Cluny. The two most notable sites of Cluniac foundations are at Thetford and Castle Acre in Norfolk.   All the new orders introduced in the twelfth century, the Premonstatensians and Victorines, the Tironensians, Carthusians, Augustinians and Cistercians were all of foreign origins except for the Gilbertines, founded by St Gilbert of Sempringham. Between them, they had a profound effect on the political and historical development, the landscape, and the agriculture of the British Isles as a whole, one that was largely independent of temporal authorities, however. Over the following four and a half centuries, from the Conquest to the Reformation, these orders entered nearly every region, to raise their churches and cloisters, and to establish around themselves new communities.

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The Premonstratensians, drawing on their origins from Prémontré outside Laon, built one of their earliest abbeys in Suffolk, and then found they had to move it away from the swampy lands to near the small town of Leiston (see photos above). They were also particularly important in Scotland, founding the great Border house of Dryburgh and also reviving the holy site of St Ninian’s white church at Whithorn. In the reign of Henry I, his Queen Consort, Matilda of Scotland, founded the house of Holy Trinity in Aldgate for the Augustinians. Henry I also handed over to them what was to be their richest abbey, at Cirencester, where they also built the splendid parish church for the townspeople.

044In Scotland, Bishop Robert , with the agreement of David I, dispossessed the Celtic monks or Culdees at St Andrews (left) in order to place the most sacred relics in Scotland in the care of the Austin canons. The Culdees were given another site, St Mary of the Rock. Bishop Robert had been prior of the Augustinian house at Scone and he built on the promontory of St Andrews the church dedicated to St Regulus, the Syrian monk who, according to legend, had brought the bones of St Andrew to Scotland in the fourth century AD. The tall tower of St Rule still stands outside the ruins of the cathedral which was begun by Bishop Arnold in 1160. The Augustinians were particularly close to the Scottish royal family: they also held the famous abbey of Holy Rood in Edinburgh and the great Border abbey at Jedburgh.

047The Cistercians founded abbeys throughout the British Isles. In Scotland they established the greatest of the Scottish border abbeys at Melrose (right), on the request of David I, in the place where St Aidan had first founded a monastery, and where St Cuthbert had been born. In Ireland their first house, at Mellifont, was founded in 1142. In Wales, their first and most famous house was at Tintern in the Wye Valley, founded in 1131, but they also went on to found the abbeys at Strata Florida and Valle Crucis, near Llangollen in north Wales.

The twelfth century saw the rapid expansion of monasticism throughout the British Isles, especially among the Cistercians and the Gilbertines, and was part of a continental expansion, including in Normandy itself. It was a historical phenomenon which stemmed partly from Rome, partly from Christian rulers, but mainly from the mission of the monks themselves to open their doors to the humble and illiterate who desired the monastic life, to the growing number of poor pilgrims who needed hospitality, and to those in need of treatment for their illnesses.

The devotion of both Saxon and Norman kings and queens, as well as some of their lords may have aided this development of monasticism, but it was not part of a Norman conquest which left Scotland, Wales and Ireland untouched until the Plantagenets attempted to enlarge their empires to the north and west.

The Hidden Legacy of the Saxons: Signs of Survival:

DSC09532In recent years, the careful cataloguing of surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, that it has become clear how many of these there are. In 1978, 267 churches were listed, identified from structural analysis and visible architectural detail as at least partly Saxon. More should probably be added. Few remains of the earliest churches have survived, mostly only as post-holes under later-excavated churches, since these were mostly built of timber. The timber church that does still remain at Greensted in Essex seems also to incorporate later Scandinavian influence. A few stone churches can be dated to the seventh or eighth centuries, usually from historical sources. Most of these are in Kent, where the first Augustinian mission was based, such as St Martin’s in Canterbury (above). There is also a group in northern England, including Jarrow, where a foundation stone gives the precise date of 23 April 684 for the dedication of St Paul’s. Unfortunately, most of that church was demolished, not by the Normans, but by the Georgians in 1782, and all that remains in Gilbert Scott’s nineteenth century church of the Saxon original is the chancel.

016Escomb in County Durham gives a better idea of an early Saxon church. This simple two-celled building still sits in its round churchyard (left). It was larger once, with a western annexe and a side chapel to the north of the nave, but its present classic simplicity makes it a model for the reconstruction of early Saxon churches.

The proportions of the nave and chancel arch, which are tall and narrow, are a classic feature of Saxon architecture, as are the massive stones which form the corners of the nave and side of the chancel arch, possibly brought from an earlier Romano-British site which became a quarry. The windows are small, intentionally designed to reflect as much light as possible in the small space, whilst at the same time seeking to economise in the use of glass, or, if left unglazed, to minimise the draught.

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Brixworth in Northamptonshire is perhaps the most impressive surviving Saxon church. The arches of the Saxon aisles still exist, made from bricks which have been dated to Romano-British times, but they are blocked up. Many different kinds of stone have been used in the construction of the church, showing how other Saxon churches might have been added to and changed, using different raw and recycled materials, from one phase to another.

The majority of churches defined as Saxon belong to a later period than Escomb and Brixworth, to the tenth or eleventh centuries, when many were rebuilt after the Viking destruction. However, parts of these churches were rebuilt from original blocks and features, including stone strips, pilasters, which can be seen on two well-preserved towers at Earls Barton and Barton-on-Humber. Some of the more decorative features can be compared to those on contemporary continental buildings. At Barton-on-Humber (see photo above), a very small church was built originally, with the tower forming the nave crammed between a small chancel and a baptistery. Over the centuries the original building was gradually added to. Archaeologists were able to trace this growth because the later church had become redundant and they could therefore excavate the whole of the interior. They were therefore able to expose a round apse, as well as to excavate part of the cemetery, where they found Anglo-Saxon burials. In other churches which have been proved to have much surviving Saxon fabric, it has been more difficult to excavate because the early walls were covered with plaster inside and later concrete rendering outside, leaving only windows and doors as a means of dating them.

A church of Saxon proportions may well contain pre-Conquest fabric, but even if none is found, continuity can be argued because the original church has been added to piecemeal over the centuries, so that its original shape has become fossilised in the later versions. Medieval builders sometimes built around an old church, reproducing it exactly, only in larger dimensions, and pulling down the old church only when finishing the new, so that the congregation could always worship with a roof over their heads. One such church is at King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, where no visible features are earlier than the twelfth century, but the nave has classic early proportions. The walls of the nave are quite probably Saxon, with twelfth-century aisles and much later clerestory windows cut through them. Historically, this was a minster, a large and important church served by a group of priests, and serving several parishes. Later in the Anglo-Saxon period this type of church government gradually gave way to the parochial and diocesan system we know today, but it is still possible to work out where many of the original minsters were.

Many more churches than those defined as having Saxon architectural origins still incorporate the remains of Saxon buildings. In fact, if we could count the numbers destroyed in the great Victorian rebuilding, we would probably discover that a very substantial proportion of the smaller churches of England had not fallen victim to Norman builders, and that, after the Conquest, many people would have worshipped in the same church as their Saxon and British ancestors before 1066. Much of the visible fabric of the ordinary villages and market towns of Anglo-Saxon England was still to be seen in Norman and early medieval times, if not into late medieval and early modern times.

Pride and Prosperity:

The continuing passion for building and rebuilding reveals considerable local pride and devotion, and illustrates a talent for united and well-organised effort. It also provides evidence of enormous wealth, much of it stemming from the trade in wool. At the time of the Domesday Suvey there were about eighty thousand sheep in East Anglia, spread fairly evenly over the whole region. Every farming community made its own cloth and sold its surplus wool in the local markets. To these markets at Bury, Ipswich, Sudbury came merchants from London and Europe. Throughout the early Medieval period wool was Suffolk’s most important export and the basis of its extraordinary prosperity.

However, compared with the prime sheep-rearing regions such as the Welsh borders and the Yorkshire moors, Suffolk wool was of an inferior quality. Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack when the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Nevertheless, Suffolk was richer than Shropshire due to the volume of trade, since it was closer to continental customers. Most of the buyers came from across the North Sea from Germany, the Baltic States and the Low Countries, regions with which East Anglians had long and close commercial contacts. The sight of these buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of laden packhorses was a very familiar one to medieval Suffolkers.

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However, by the beginning of the twelfth century, the development of international trade, the building of castles, churches and cathedrals, due to the growth of important centres of pilgrimage, had all contributed to the concentration of population and the growth of towns such as Ipswich (above). The case of Bury St Edmunds showed that it was impossible for feudal law and custom to apply to emerging centres of trade and commerce.

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The Norman Conquest was a military invasion that left physical remains in the archaeological and architectural record. However, much of the fabric of everyday life did survive the Conquest. There were no real changes in religion, in burial rites, house types, jewellery, pottery or coinage. The basic ethnicity of the population remained the same, so that genetic analysis of skeletons in recent years has shown little change in composition. The Normans simply added a top deck or layer to Anglo-Saxon society, a ruling élite, and one that was not simply Norman, and certainly not very Norse. In fact, the ‘Conquest’ helped to re-orientate England from being part of Cnut’s North Sea trading empire, to a commercial fulcrum with the European mainland, which it has remained as for the past 950 years.  Linguistically, Norman French, which became the Court language, did not supplant the dialects of the Anglo-Saxons as a dominant lingua franca, and these dialects gradually became a common tongue based on the Mercian dialect, incorporating Danish vocabulary, with a few French synonyms added. Latin remained the language of government and administration, as it had been under the House of Wessex. Culturally, the British Isles became more integrated within Christendom, a process which, under Edward the Confessor, was already in progress before the successful invasion. Only in the way castles were sited and in the drastic rebuilding of significant religious monuments do we have unequivocal evidence of a full-scale and widespread conquest. Even then and there, these kinds of change need to be evaluated in longer-term historical and broader geographical contexts.

Printed Sources: as previously listed in earlier parts, especially Copinger (1905).

1066-1086 And All That: The Domesday ‘Casebook’ Considered.   Leave a comment

William the Conqueror’s followers, the last invaders of England, thought it necessary to impress the natives with their might. Throughout the land they erected castles, but these were simple affairs at first, built of earth and wood, lumps and bumps on today’s landscape, not the lasting stone monuments to their mastery we now visit. These later strongholds were not built to keep out the Saxon peasantry, but for the lords to fight private battles with each other, or even with their king.

The Gulafras (Gullivers) and the Manors of Suffolk:

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Most landlords did not depend on royal patronage for their continuing tenure, but by keeping the peace on their lands, chiefly by respecting the pre-Conquest rights of their tenants, and managing their manors and estates diplomatically, especially in their relations with neighbouring magnates. There is also evidence of greater stratification among the landowning classes, with many examples of sub-tenanting of manors and more flexible arrangements where the management of freemen was concerned. To understand this, we need to look at those families other than the Bigods who, for one reason or another, did not become tenants-in-chief, or as continuously wealthy and powerful as they did.

In the case of the Goulaffre/ Gulafra family in Suffolk, this may have been due to their desire (at least initially) to continue to maintain and manage lands in Normandy, under Duke Robert. Under the Conqueror’s eldest son, Guillaume Goulafriere fought in the First Crusade which left Normandy in 1096. His estates in England passed to his son, Roger, who was Lord of Oakenhill Hall Manor in the reign of Henry II. The main branches of the family are documented as holding lands in East Anglia, especially Suffolk, and Essex, between Domesday (1086) and 1273. There are also references to the family name, or variants of it, in court records for Sussex, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

In Suffolk, where Copinger’s 1905 book helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, we find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that his William Malet’s mother was English, and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Edith (the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, who was the father of Edith). Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded his faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was in fact the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye, and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

The other manor, also thirty acres, was originally held by Siric, another freeman. Robert Malet was the tenant-in-chief in 1086, but Stigand was tenant. Whether or not this was the Saxon Archbishop of Canterbury, whose uncanonical appointment was one justification given by the Pope for his support for William, we cannot be sure. Although he died in 1072, Stigand’s significant land tenure is still recorded in Domesday in his name, and we know that he continued to hold manors in Elmham and Ashingdon in Essex, where he had been bishop, even after he was deposed by William in 1070. It seems that, here at least, the Saxon freehold may well have survived the Conquest, since William was not strong enough (at first) to remove Stigand. Our image of the Duke of Normandy as an all-powerful conqueror appears somewhat removed from the reality. William Gulafra also held three acres in Aspall, valued at fifteen shillings.

The villages of Oakley and Brome, enumerated together in Domesday were composed of two carucates (or hides – 100-120 acres), one in each village. Here, William Gulafra was a sub-tenant of Robert Malet, holding thirty acres and two freemen, each with half an acre, sharing a ploughteam, an acre and a half of meadow and a mill, valued at ten shillings. In Thrandeston, Robert Malet had sixteen acres, valued at two shillings, held as tenant by William Gulafra. Okenhill Hall Manor, or Saxhams, as it was known locally, also formed part of the great Malet holding.  Another of the manors originally held by William Gulafra came to be known as Mandeville’s Manor. Interestingly, this estate of Leuric seems already to have been under Norman protection in the time of the Confessor, though what that meant in terms of land-holding is unclear. At the time of Domesday, it was one of the manors held by William Malet, who passed it to his son Robert. William Gulafre held it in the time of Henry I and passed it to his son, Roger Gulafre, and so it came via Philippa Gulafre into the eventual control of the Mandevilles.

Ashfield was one two Saxon manors, one held by Godman and the other by Brictmar (who also held land at Aspall), both of whom were freemen. The first was thirty acres, and the second twenty-four. There were also twenty-seven acres held by four other freemen. At the time of Domesday, Robert Malet held four of these manors, apparently as tenant-in-chief, but the fourth of these was held by William Gulafra (of ‘Earl Hugh’), ten acres valued at twenty pence (presumably, per acre).

The large village of Debenham consisted of three Saxon manors, the first held by Edric, freeman under commendation to William Malet, with sixteen bordars, twelve ploughteams in demesne and three beloging to the freemen, four acres of meadow, wood enough to support sixty hogs, a rouncy (a cart-horse), four beasts, forty hogs, thirty sheep and forty goats. At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by William Gulafre, of Robert Malet. There were only one and a half ploughteams belonging to the freemen, woodland for only forty hogs, six beasts, twenty hogs, forty-five sheep and twenty-eight goats. The value of the whole estate had declined from sixty shillings to fifty shillings at the time of Domesday, which shows that the Conquest could well have had a negative effect on the wealthier Saxon manors, possibly due to the amount of woodland which was cut down for building castles.William Gulafra also held over the freemen on Malet’s other holding of thirty-six acres, the value of which had declined from ten shillings to six. This suggested that he managed the Saxon freemen for Malet, perhaps as an intermediary who understood them better and who respected him as a farmer. He also held Malet’s sixth estate of ten acres, which had half a ploughteam and was valued at two shillings.

Winston appears, again, to have had a very independent status as a manor, because it was held in the time of the Confessor by the Abbot of Ely, in demesne. Like Stigand, he was a Saxon, Thurstan, appointed by Harold but, unlike Stigand, he was also honest and hard-working, so William did not replace him, even when he (famously) gave Hereward the Wake sanctuary from William’s soldiers in 1071, helping him escape through the Fens. Although the Abbey was fined heavily, and its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester. The Abbey’s land in Winston consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, it was still held by the abbot, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds and ten shillings, however, the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the abbot’s land. William Golafra also held nineteen acres of land, with a ploughteam, an acre of meadow and two bordars, valued at four shillings. Again, it is worth speculating that Golafra held the manor during the confiscation and that, on its reinstatement to Ely, helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as in Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with Golafra, was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

The Domesday Evidence Evaluated:

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As we have seen, the basic system of land holding and administration continued in use. We know a great deal about this from documentary sources pre-dating the Conquest: law codes, charters, wills, letters and so on. We also have the Domesday Books. Drawn up twenty years after the Conquest by the Norman king, it might be thought that it was an entirely Norman-manufactured account. This would be a great mistake, however. It records the state of affairs in the time of King Edward and now, so that it provides a factual description of each manor both before and after the Conquest. It seems to build both on a variety of earlier documents and a variety of oral testimonies. It is not an attempt to introduce new systems of land holding, feudal dues and taxes, but to explain who held what, by what right, and at what value. William wanted to know exactly what his kingdom was like and what taxes he could expect from each manor, but he was not trying to increase taxes or introduce a new system. If he had been trying to do either, it is unlikely that there would have been so many references to the decreasing worth of the land due to the Conquest. He must have known that the effects of the Conquest carried a heavy cost, in particular the cost of the felling of timber to construct castles and the diverting of labour away from the fields for these purposes. He knew he could not tax the land for more than it was worth.

Some features of Anglo-Saxon law were altered: the position of women was drastically downgraded by the Conquest, even that of those among the great landlords, because they lost the right to hold property independently of fathers or husbands, even when widowed, without special leases and covenants granted on petition by the courts. However, a great deal else was retained. Domesday is both a monument to Norman England and Saxon England because it shows how the basic structure of government, land-tenure and feudal society as a whole remained basically the same throughout the first twenty years of Norman rule as it had been in the reign of King Edward. However, it does also record sudden destruction and lasting devastation and shows a distinct change in the names of many of the chief landlords and their sub-tenants, from British, Danish or Saxon to Breton, Norman or French. The peasants still trudged out to till the fields, whoever was collecting the taxes and whatever names their lords went by. They bore a yoke, sure enough, but it wasn’t particularly Norman. It was one most of them them had born for centuries.

The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.

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The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.

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There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.

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East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   

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The Dialects of Middle English: Part One; Southern and Northern   Leave a comment

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Above: Middle English dialectal areas

What’s in a dialect?

Evidence from the written sources suggests that there were four main dialectical areas: West Saxon (Wessex), Kentish, Mercian and Northumbrian. In Middle English, these remained basically Danes, and the consequent influence of Norse, there was enough variation of Mercian English on both sides of the Danelaw for them to be considered as two distinct dialects. Therefore, the five principal dialects of Middle English were: Southern, Kentish, East Midlands, West Midlands and Northern. In addition, the dialects of Northern English spoken in southern Scotland were known as Inglis until about 1500, when writers began to refer to them as Scottis, now known as Scots.

Dialects are varieties of a single language which are ‘mutually comprehensible’; that is, speakers of different dialects can talk to and understand each other. An unfamiliar dialect may be difficult to comprehend at first because of its peculiar pronunciation and/ or vocabulary, but with familiarity, these difficulties disappear. This is not the case with a foreign language. So, whilst a Breton onion-seller could make himself understood to a Welsh shepherd, he would not be understood by a Northumbrian one. However, the Northumbrian shepherd would understand his ‘Wessex’ counterpart. Dialects have most of their grammar and vocabulary in common; therefore, we are able to make a short-list of the features to look for when describing the main differences between dialects. Today, dialects are usually compared to Standard English, but in the early Middle Ages and even into the fifteenth century, there was no national standard form of English, only regional standards. Within what we call a dialect, there are always other variations, so that the more closely we examine the speech or writing of a dialectal area, the more differences we observe, until we eventually arrive at the concept of an individual person’s own variety of language, an ‘idiolect’.

In the Middle English (ME) period, there was no single dialect or variety of the language whose spelling, vocabulary and grammar were used for writing throughout the country. After the Norman Conquest, Northern French replaced the Wessex variety of English as the spoken language of the Norman court. In the twelfth century, this was replaced by Parisian French, carrying more prestige. This was also the language of instruction in English schools until the late fourteenth century. After 1362 English became widely used in the law courts and Parliament was opened in English. The educated East Midland English of London was beginning to become the standard form of English throughout the country, although the establishment of a Standard English was not completed until the eighteenth century. In ME, there were only dialects, with writers and copyists using the forms of speech of their own region. The end of Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, written in about 1385, provides evidence of this:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye…

And for there is so gret divesite

In Englissh and in writing of oure tonge,

So prey I God than non miswrite the,

Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

Southern (Wessex) and Kentish Dialects:

In the same year, John of Trevisa wrote of the many people… and tonges of the British, not just in the form of the Welsh Language and among the Scots, but also among the Germanic and Danish English. This ‘diversity of tongues’ can be found in writings from different parts of the country in the ME period, revealing variations in the spelling of words. There are also inconsistencies within dialectal areas and even within the same manuscript. Conversely, some spellings remained the same, despite alterations in pronunciation. Writing in the 1380s, John of Trevisa described the linguistic situation at the time. His complete work is a translation of a history written in Latin earlier in the century. He was the vicar of Berkeley in Gloucestershire when he translated Polychronicon. The work is a reminder of the origins of the historical origins of English and its dialects. Trevisa’s attitude is not unlike that of some scholars today, in his talk of the ‘deterioration’ of the language, but the reason he gave for its decline in his time was the fashion for speaking French. He wrote in the Southern, ‘Wessex’ dialect of ME, although his use of the dialect is said to be ‘impure’.

Many of the contrasts between older and present-day English are matters of style rather than significant grammatical differences. We can read Trevisa’s text without much difficulty, but it does not transcribe word for word into Modern English (MnE). The phrase a child hys broche (a child’s toy) was a new construction for the possessive which did not derive from OE which survived for some time but has now been replaced by the apostrophe. The use of the infinitive construction ‘for to’ is still present in some dialects, and as a device in folk songs old and new, but is now non-standard. Prepositions were also used at the end of sentences as in told of (spoken of), considered ungrammatical in MnE.

In identifying the alphabetical symbols used and their relationship to contrasting sounds of dialectal accents, we have to be careful not to assume that there is a one-to-one relationship between sound and letter. Some differences of spelling in ME texts are not the result of differences in pronunciation, but rather of the fact that spellings tend to be retained long after changes in pronunciation had transpired. These difficulties in dating shifts in pronunciation and spelling are compounded by the fact that manuscripts were rarely dated. That is one reason why the book translated by a monk of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Michael of Northgate, is so significant. He finished the book, Ayenbite of Inwyt, ‘the remorse of conscience’, a translation from a French original, on 27 October 1340. The other reason is that he spelled consistently throughout the text. It therefore provides us with accurate evidence of the Kent dialect at that time. Here is a passage in word-for-word translation:

Now I wish that you know

How it is went (how it has come about)

That this book is written

With English of Kent.

This book is made for lewd men*

Them for to protect from all manner sin

(*common folk)

This is as near to a ‘pure’ dialect as we can get, remembering that the written form can never really provide an accurate idea of how the spoken dialect sounded. Also, as Michael was translating from French, it is possible that some idioms as from that language, rather than being genuine ME expressions. Nevertheless, we can identify differences in word order and collocation which highlight differences between dialects and between ME and MnE. Even limited observations suggest that Kentish was a ‘conservative’ dialect, retaining more features of the OE system of inflections, even though greatly reduced. Many of these features were similar those found in the ‘Wessex’ texts of John of Trevisa. This is to be expected when one considers the way that the Thames, with few crossings between London and Oxford, acted as a barrier between the South as a whole, especially Kent, and the Midlands.

Below: Extract from Ayenbite of Inwyt,1340

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Northern (Northumbrian) Dialects:

The Northern dialects of ME came from the Northumbrian dialects of OE. The present-day dialects of Scotland and the North of England are still markedly distinct from Standard English and other dialects in grammatical features and vocabulary, and from RP, Midlands and Southern English accents in pronunciation. John of Trevisa’s remarked that the citizens of fourteenth century York spoke in a way which was ‘scharp slyttyng and frotyng and unschape’. The modern equivalents of these descriptions can be heard today among southerners unfamiliar with Geordie, Glaswegian and North Yorkshire accents, and Northerners make equally disparaging remarks about RP speakers from the South. One person’s ‘thick accent’ is another person’s familiar speech, and beauty is in the ear of the listener rather than an objective standard. Besides, television series and films in the 1990s made regional varieties of English more accessible to the country as a whole, and radio announcers now speak with a wider range of regional accents than in the last century.

As we cannot reproduce the actual sound of the dialects of the past, we cannot follow up this aspect of linguistic diversity. The only evidence we have of the phonics which once existed is in their transcription into manuscripts. Since spellings are not always phonetic and are inconsistent even in their reproduction by a single scribe, we can only speculate about pronunciation in the abstract, recognising some of the major shifts, but not properly hearing them. Most of the linguist’s focus must therefore be on grammar and vocabulary.

The Bruce is a verse chronicle of the heroic deeds of Robert (the) Bruce (1274-1329), written by John Barbour in about 1375 as The Actes and Life of the Most Victorious Conqueror, Robert Bruce King of Scotland. Barbour was the Archdeacon of Aberdeen and had studied and taught at Oxford and Paris. The following extract comes from the first book, written in the Northern (Scots) dialect:

A fredome is a noble thing

Fredome mays man to haiff liking

Fredome all solace to man giffis

He levys at es yat frely levys

A noble hart may haf nane es

Na ellys nocht yat may him ples…

In word-for-word transcription, this reads more like Modern English, more so than many Southern dialects of ME, which still retained many of the inflections of OE:

Ah freedom is a noble thing,

Freedom makes man to have liking (= free choice),

Freedom all solace to man gives,

He lives at ease that freely lives,

A noble heart may have no ease,

Nor else nought that may him please.

The pronunciation of the final ‘e’ in a word where followed by a consonant was all that was left of the many OE inflections, but even the use of this was a matter of choice for speakers and, therefore, for writers like Chaucer. Some of his characters use it, others don’t. In Barbour’s verse there is no evidence of its continued use, and Scots writers had adopted the convention of using the ‘i’ as the means of making vowels longer, as in haiff in the second line of Barbour’s poem given above. As it is an infinitive, haiff has no inflection; neither do knaw and pless.

There is evidence of the development of ‘gerund’ forms, a noun drived from a verb, as in liking. The word order of verse is often more abnormal than that of prose, as in Fredome all solace to man’s giffis, which cannot provide good evidence of normal spoken word order. Nevertheless, the third person ‘is’ or ‘ys’ inflections and the past participles with ‘yt’ make the verse seem closer to MnE.

Below: John Barbour on the siege of Berwick, from ‘Bruce’, c.1375

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The York ‘mystery’ plays provide evidence of the development of another Northern dialect, that of York and North Yorkshire. These plays are a cycle of fifty short performances which tell the story of the world according to medieval Christian tradition, from the Fall of the Angels and the Creation to the Last Judgement.   Each craft guild of the city was responsible for the costs and production of a play, which was performed in procession on a pageant-wagon around the streets of York. Some of the plays were assigned to guilds whose occupation was featured in the story. For example, the bakers played the Last Supper, the shipwrights built the Ark, the fishermen and mariners performed the Flood, and the vintners provided the wine for the Marriage at Cana. The cycle was produced each year for the feast of Corpus Christi, from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century. Twelve stations were set up in the streets and each pageant-wagon moved in procession from one station to another to perform its play. The procession of wagons began at 4.30 p.m. and was concluded long after midnight. Banners representing the respective guilds marked the position of the stations in the cycle, and proclamations were made, written down on parchment in order to be read out theatrically. One of these survives for the year 1415, but the only copy of all the plays to have done so was written in 1470, originally the property of the corporation of the city. It was probably compiled from the various prompt copies belonging to each of the performing guilds, so the language probably belongs, like the proclamation, to the earlier part of the fifteenth century. The dialect is Northern, but the scribes introduced a number of modifications from the East Midland dialect, the evidence for this being in the variations of spelling. The use of some East Midland forms marks the beginning of a standardised system of spelling. Since the plays are written in a variety of verse stanza patterns, with both rhyme and alliteration, so that they cannot be read as everyday speech, in spite of the vividness of the dialogue.

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On becaming Archbishop of York in 1352, John de Thoresby found many of his parish priests ignorant and neglectful of their duties. As one remedy for this, he wrote a ‘catechism’ in Latin, setting out the main doctrines of the faith. It was translated into English by a monk of St Mary’s Abbey in York in 1357. This version is called The Lay Folk’s Catechism and was extended a little later by John Wycliffe, who was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire, but worked and lived for long periods in Oxford and Leicestershire. His writings were therefore a variety of the Midlands dialect. By comparing the two versions of Thoresby’s Catechism, we can therefore distinguish between the dialects of the North and the Midlands.

Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale features two undergraduates, ‘yonge poure scolers’ from the North. He marks their speech with some of the features that his readers would recognise. He wrote in the educated London accent which differed greatly in its grammar and pronunciation from the Northern dialect. In this extract, Aleyn and Iohn have arrived at a mill and greet Symkyn, the miller. They intend to supervise the grinding of their corn, since millers were notorious for cheating their customers:

Aleyn spak first: All hayl Symkin in faith

How fares thy faire doghter and thy wife?

Aleyn welcome, quod Symkyn, by my lif

And Iohn also. How now what do ye here?

By god, quod Iohn, Symond need has na peere.

Hym bihoues serue himself that has na swayn

Or ellis he is a fool, as clarkes sayn.

Our maunciple, I hope he will be deed,

Swa werkes and wanges in his heed.

And therefore is I come and eek Alayn

To grynde our corn and carie it heem agayn…

The northern words and expressions are highlighted in bold type. MnE equivalents are given in the glossary below:

heem = home

hope = hope/ believe

hym bihoues = (him behoves), he must

swa = so

swayn (ON) = swain, servant

wanges = back teeth

workes = aches

 

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